Editor's note: This story originally appeared Jan. 8 following the Ravens' playoff loss to the Chargers. Flacco was traded to the Broncos on Wednesday.
In leaving as the most successful quarterback in Ravens history, Flacco delivered one final clutch play -- allowing the franchise to hand the ball off to his successor without a hint of controversy. He turned an awkward transition into a smooth one for Lamar Jackson, dealing with his benching with the utmost professionalism.
On Dec. 12, Flacco complimented Jackson moments after Flacco was officially demoted, swallowing his competitive spirit in the best interest of the team. After Sunday's 23-17 wild-card loss to the Chargers, Flacco shut down a question on whether he could've made a difference if he had replaced a struggling Jackson.
"No, no, you can’t even go there, man," Flacco said in what will likely be his final comments as a part of the Ravens. "I thought Lamar did a great job of just hanging in there and giving us a chance at the end."
When Baltimore drafted the No. 32 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Flacco understood it was the beginning of his end with a franchise that he had elevated to the top of the football world. It was only a matter of time before Flacco would be replaced, and he had to work every day alongside the player earmarked for his spot.
Flacco's relationship with Jackson would be constantly analyzed for months:
Flacco must be upset because it took so long for him to reach out to Jackson after he got drafted.
Flacco must have a grudge against Jackson because he didn't throw to the first-round pick when he was wide open in a game two months ago.
Flacco must have no rapport with Jackson because he's rarely even talking to him when cameras pan over to the sideline bench.
But when Jackson was at his lowest point of his rookie season, Flacco was there with encouraging words. On Sunday, Jackson entered the fourth quarter with a zero passer rating. The Ravens were trailing by 20 points. The home crowd was chanting for Flacco.
That's when Flacco told Jackson: "Listen, finish strong. At some point you’re going to be proud of how you finished no matter what happens. This is all part of it. You know, dealing with the situation right now. It’s still a game, so go out there and do what you can to get us back in it. Handle yourself the way you would like to see yourself handle the situation."
Wasn't it frustrating for Flacco to be a bystander Sunday?
“It really wasn’t," Flacco said. "We made the decision what was going to happen here weeks ago. I really wanted to see the guys turn it up a little bit and make a play, which they did."
Flacco can be criticized for his inconsistency over the years and the failure to live up to the record-setting deals. What can't be overlooked is how Flacco stopped a revolving door at quarterback for Baltimore. Before drafting Flacco in 2008, the Ravens started 15 quarterbacks in the franchise's first 12 seasons.
In his first five seasons, Flacco went 54-26 (.675) in leading Baltimore to the playoffs each season, including three trips to the AFC Championship Game and one Super Bowl Most Valuable Player performance. In 2012, Flacco was masterful in joining Joe Montana as the only other player to total 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in an NFL postseason.
While Flacco never came close to the production of being the NFL's highest-paid player in 2013 (he signed a six-year contract worth $120.6 million), he never blamed anyone for the team's struggles, even when his supporting cast was lacking. Over his final six seasons, Flacco never played alongside a No. 1 wide receiver or No. 1 running back in his prime.
Now the Ravens are officially parting ways with Flacco. Coach John Harbaugh announced the end of the Flacco era minutes after Sunday's playoff loss.
"Joe is going to have a market," Harbaugh said. "A lot of teams are going to want Joe because they understand that. I’ll be in Joe’s corner, wherever he’s at, unless we play him. He’s special. Joe Flacco is a great talent. He’s an even better person. He’s the best quarterback in the history of the Ravens, without question. That’s not even because I’m biased -- it’s just a fact. Yes, he’s going to be just fine."
There's a strong likelihood that Baltimore can trade Flacco. What helps the Ravens is the lack of top quarterback prospects in this year's draft and Flacco's $18.5 million salary. Any team wanting a proven veteran quarterback -- possibly Washington, Jacksonville or Miami -- would have to pay more than that in first-year salary and bonuses.
Wherever he lands, that franchise will know it's getting a quarterback who has a track record for playing his best when the stakes are the highest and doing whatever it takes to win -- even if it means putting the team's best interests in front of his own.